First master’s degree students complete UF College of Medicine’s gerontology program

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For a group of pioneering master’s degree students at the University of Florida College of Medicine, Graduation Day has come.

On April 28, three students who comprised the inaugural class in the department of aging and geriatric research’s master’s degree program will get their degrees in medical sciences with a concentration in gerontology.

The online program, launched in 2015, is especially appealing to working professionals who need a flexible study schedule, said Christy Carter, Ph.D., an assistant professor and director of educational programs in the department of aging and geriatric research.

From its modest beginning, the program has grown to include 21 master’s degree students. Another eight students are enrolled in a one-year graduate certificate program in aging and geriatric practice, while nine others have already earned certificates.

The broad-based curriculum is meant to benefit those who work with or on behalf of the elderly, including mediators, attorneys, accountants, nurses, nursing home administrators and government officials.

“The one core value is that every student cares about the quality of life among older people, and that’s why they’re taking the program,” Carter said.

It’s also a burgeoning career field: The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that 26.7 percent of Floridians will be age 60 or older by 2020. The United States is ill-prepared to meet the current and future workforce needs of its aging population, according to the Eldercare Workforce Alliance. Carter said she envisions current and future master’s degree students going on to influence everything from how businesses market to seniors to new programs nurse managers create especially for older people. It’s also a valuable degree for someone looking to become a manager in a health care environment.

“They can help to determine policy to improve health care for older people,” Carter said.

Maria Schlafke, the first student to enroll in the program, is eager to use her master’s degree to make even more of a difference in the lives of Florida’s aging residents. Schlafke said her studies will add to her experience as an elder care mediator and elder-caring coordinator in probate and guardianship cases. Her training also will help her resolve challenging legal cases involving seniors and their families. When a case gets crowded with attorneys and emotional family members, Schlafke said, she will be in a better position to provide a thorough and unbiased perspective about the best interests of the person at the center of the case.

“Being a gerontologist will really help me evaluate and ascertain the needs of the elderly and be able to resolve high-level conflicts that arise about their care,” she said.

The master’s degree program at the UF College of Medicine stands out for several reasons, Carter said. It offers asynchronous classes, meaning that students don’t all have to log on at the same day or time. Interaction with other students comes through activities such as peer commenting on presentations and papers. The program also doesn’t rely on traditional lectures and tests. Carter said the students’ assignments sometimes involve topics and activities that are immediately relevant to their work lives. If dementia is the topic in class, students might be asked to create a presentation about everything they learned that week that could be given to their work colleagues.

There are only a handful of programs like this in the country, Carter said, and it’s one of the few that is housed within a medical school. “This is a broad-based program that gives students a sense of gerontology’s larger role in medicine,” she said.

Launching a new master’s program was a challenge but one that is especially fulfilling because the students are so enthusiastic, she added.

“It’s really heartwarming to see how much our students care and how dedicated they are to the well-being of older people,” Carter said.

For information about the program, go to online.aging.ufl.edu.